Archive for the ‘Clast’ Category

Booms Go Bust

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Japanese fashion subcultures can sometimes appear a little too “orderly.” Gothic-lolitas are 120% “gothic-lolita.” Hip hop kids are perfectly constructed “hip hop kids.” Everything is obvious and cleanly delineated. Glancing at most books about Japanese pop culture history, subcultures appear to have always been organized into immaculately-distinct units. For example, 1955 was the year of the Mambo Style, 1956 was the year of the Sun Tribe (Taiyo-zoku), and 1957 was the year of the Calypso Style. A socialist Pop Culture Politburo could only dream of such efficiency in trend adoption and abandonment.

Both the Japanese media and pop historians generally conceptualize post-war popular culture as a linear progression of “booms” (ブーム) — the Japanese word for short-lived “fads” that define their respective eras. The book Japanese Trend Timeline Seen Through Charts (『チャートでみる日本の流行年史』) is a prime example of this boom-centered perspective on constructing a narrative within Japanese culture. According to the book, Freshly Baked Cheesecake was all the rage in ’91, but ¥500 Cheesecake took over in ’93. Even the nature of romantic relationships changed on a yearly basis: The bakappuru (“idiot couple”), for example, was something that happened in 1995. This approach owes a lot to the Japanese media’s own over-obsessive reporting on minor social changes. In 1986, “DINKS” — couples with double-income no kids — were all the rage in the media and marketing worlds, but it’s hard to imagine this particular demographic disappeared after everyone moved on to obsessing over gyaku-tama (逆玉, men marrying rich women for their money) a few years later. The media just needed a new story.

Whether or not booms seem like a product of media excess, the market ended up organizing itself around predictable patterns of short-lived trends. By setting up each year as the nest for a different “boom,” cultural producers were able to reduce risk. The usually fickle youth consumer behavior could become as planning-friendly as steel or coal. No one could perfectly forecast exactly what would boom in a few years’ time, but they knew something would.

The cover story in the February 1, 2008 issue of marketing journal Senden Kaigi — “All About Youth” (「若者のすべて」) — gives credence to the idea that booms had long been a “top-down” cultural trend rather than a “bottom-up” one. In an interview with several editors for teen magazines, Nicola‘s editor-in-chief Matsumoto Mihoko gives an interesting quote about the difficulty of marketing to teens in recent years (translation and bold mine):

When we started publishing Nicola 11 years ago, it was an era where girls in the target readership felt a sense of hunger towards fashion. So, it was easy to create booms.

Here the media does not see its natural job as merely reacting towards consumer tastes, but creating the booms themselves. The article goes on to explain (translation mine):

Apparently it is growing much more difficult for those booms manufactured by the media or companies to permeate (into society) as they did in the past.

Japanese companies in the cultural industries have not always succeeded in pushing products on consumers, but they should probably take most of the credit for creating the society-engulfing booms that really mattered. Now that consumers are much more dispassionate about following media-created styles (either a sign of Western-style individualism or hikkikomori-style solipsism, depending on whom you ask), the result has not been more consumer-driven booms, but less booms total. Booms always needed media and manufacturer coordination to make the boom visible on national level, put the products in stores at the ideal time, and then pull the rug out from under everyone in a year’s time to make room for something new. Now that consumers are behaving more freely from the “mass media,” tastes have diffused and consumer needs no longer change on the exact same schedule as the industry’s seasonal framework. Booms no longer fit the market.

Not to say there are no booms: the Keitai Novel phenomenon definitely qualifies (the book industry launched a coordinated television campaign to make Mika’s Koizora into a mass success). Fashion magazines last autumn called for girls to go out and buy pink color tights, and suddenly the streets of Omotesando were glowing with fuchsia knees poking out between miniskirts and leather riding boots.

But there does need to be a reconceptualization of the relationship between producers, consumers, and the media. Japanese manufacturers have been spoiled in the past with too much power over editorial-voice-for-rent Japanese magazines and a populace generally interested in consuming the exact same things as everyone else on a strict timetable. Now that the media is losing its authoritarian voice, youth are broke (or saving for the future), and consumers are more interested in their own needs rather than fitting in with “society at large,” perhaps companies will have to rethink the cultural forcefeeding and start… marketing?

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

O-nii-kei Blazes On

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

For the last six months, Japanese male fashion fans have been waiting in great anticipation for the opening of department store Hankyu‘s new Men’s building in Osaka — aptly named Hankyu Men’s. This annex to the main building would bring together the widest selection of top-class and popular fashion brands every assembled under one roof. Designer brands Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Dior Homme, and Maison Martin Margiela would be available, as well as luxury powerhouses Gucci, Prada, and Salvatore Ferragamo. More traditional-minded working men could browse Paul Stuart, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, and Ralph Lauren Purple Label. Tom Ford would offer his very first retail space in Japan.

Last weekend, Hankyu Men’s finally opened for business, attracting 180,000 shoppers in three days. According to the Senken Shimbun, Louis Vuitton first-ever men’s only boutique apparently brought in the highest revenues of any tenant (thus proving that LV is not only for women in Japan).

The number two winner, however, was quite a surprise. With almost all the first-tier brands lined up for direct competition, this was quite possibly a battle for the mind and soul of the Japanese fashion market. Even with so many European luxury houses, designer labels, Ivy League standards, and prestigious licenses offered, the brand earning the second-highest sales ended up being Buffalo Bobs — a leader in the relatively new “O-nii-kei” fashion subculture. In three days, this up-and-coming “wild and sexy” casual brand raked in ¥9.9 million.

O-nii-kei — meaning “big brother style” — has crystallized over the last few years as a more market-friendly, classically-masculine version of the “gyaru-o” taste culture. The gyaru-o were the young men who used to hang out with the more extreme “ganguro” members of the gyaru subculture in Shibuya. Now these boys have grown up, abandoned the crazy face paint and garish clothing, and outfitted themselves with aviator glasses, fur-trimmed nylon parkas, buccaneer boots, poofy bronzed hair, and as much silver as could be possible worn on the human body. (Think hosts). The central location for O-nii-kei is Shibuya (more specifically, fifth and sixth floors of Shibuya 109-2), but the look has spread across the archipelago. (For some visual examples of the style, check Patrick Macias’ excellent coverage here, here, and here.)

With the fashion market slowly crumbling and foreign “Japan Cool” hunters looking for the next big thing amongst Japanese youth, you’d think more observers in the Japanese and international media class would be falling all over O-nii-kei. Here is a self-contained fashion movement that has created a real economic market, despite little attention from the apparel manufacturing giants and media support dependent upon independent fashion titles Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle.

The darkly-tanned boys of O-nii-kei, however, are not about to make the cover of Men’s Non-no. I think it is fair to say that the “wild & sexy” style is held as anathema by the tastemakers in the fashion industrial complex. O-nii-kei is basically the latest incarnation of the “yankii” subculture that has been the aesthetic canon for working class delinquent youth tastes since the 1970s. Although alternately romanticized and demonized in the culture at large, yankii have always existed as an outcast from the fashion industry and “proper” consumerism. O-nii-kei is in essentially the same position today. The “serious” men’s fashion magazines may take a bit of “street” style into their wardrobe authorizations, but never touch anything approximating O-nii-kei, which they generally consider “unclean.” (Although there have been rumors that struggling Takarajima publication Smart may take up some O-nii-kei touches…)

So here we have a typical problem in the Cool Industries: The actual youth subculture that is “winning” in terms of sales, growth, and momentum is ghettoized because those at the top do not personally approve of the style. In the past, bottom-up groundswells have forced magazines to realign their fashion sense to meet the changes in consumer tastes. But in most cases, those “new styles” — like Shibuya Casual (shibukaji) in the late ’80s and Ura-Harajuku in the mid-’90s — started amongst upper middle-class youth — in other words, magazines’ main consumer base. O-nii-kei, however, is so tied to a (perceived) lower class taste culture that fashion market “leaders” Popeye or Men’s Nonno could not possibly speak its language without destroying their own up-market position and credibility with advertisers (who are in reality their most important target audience). But currying mainstream magazines’ favor may be a moot point. Buffalo Bobs and Vanquish haven’t needed the main fashion press to get where they are, so why start now?

There is a bigger question at stake, however: trend-spotters and cool-hunters have told us for the last decade that mass fashion trends trickle-down from a street-savvy “style elite,” who just happen to be very similar in tastes to the cool-hunters themselves. Now we see that this does not necessarily have to be true. There are lots of taste culture niches moving in parallel motion, and despite less social capital and cultural capital, niches at the bottom will be able to concentrate enough economic power to make the biggest splash in sluggish markets. Like with Akiba-kei, the O-nii-kei are no longer just consumers active in their own “alternative” market: They are the only consumers consuming enough to matter!

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Yappari Neko Ga Suki

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Yappari Neko ga Suki 「やっぱり猫が好き」 premiered in late 1988 as a “situation comedy” on Fuji TV. The basic set-up concerns three grown-up sisters living, eating, and gabbing in their Tokyo apartment. The show rarely featured meaty plots or even additional characters, but there was something charming about the realistically-meandering dialog of the three lead actresses Motai Masako, Muroi Shigeru, and Kobayashi Satomi. Like The Cosby Show or Friends, the show was filmed in front of a live audience. But without the standard “zing” punchline-heavy scripts or flashing APPLAUSE signs, the audible audience response is more spontaneous and random, giving Yappari Neko ga Suki the feeling of live theater rather than pre-packaged TV.

Airing at 00:40 am on Tuesday nights, the program could have been any other late-night throwaway program doomed to obscurity. Instead, enough viewers stayed up late every week to convince Fuji to do another season of the show, this time in the more reasonable time-slot of 7:30 on Saturday night. While successful for what it was, Yappari Neko ga Suki never transcended a narrow appeal to a specific cult fan base of women then in their teens and 20s. The show, however, has not just become a historical footnote: starting late last year, brewery Sapporo re-united the cast of Yappari Neko ga Suki to be the campaign spokeswomen (in character) for the beer happōshu Namashibori. (On the show itself, they always seemed to be chugging cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon — the happōshu of its times.)

As both a TV program and a cultural phenomena, Yappari Neko ga Suki has a few lessons and insights for the nature of contemporary entertainment and advertising in Japan.

1) There is nothing inherently “Japanese” about bad acting

The contemporary Japanese television drama is so rife with overacting and melodrama that some commentators have started to believe that poor acting is intentional and culturally-mediated — possibly a modern-day reflection of Japanese theater traditions or stage aesthetics. Yappari Neko ga Suki‘s three nimble actresses show what Japanese drama can be if the cast have actual experience and skills as actors. The Yappari format requires long ten-minute recitations of a script (plus ad-libbing) in front of a live audience — little different from more “serious” theatre. Only real actors can pull this off; you can’t fake it. Today’s dramas use a “one line of dialog = one shot” filming style, which fits better with the non-actor “pretty faces” that powerful Japanese entertainment companies discover and provide to TV producers.

Yappari Neko ga Suki is a reminder that Japan is in no lack of capable actors, but that the inner-workings of the entertainment industry and its casting process tend to force experienced players to late-night and other obscure formats.

2) Longer program runs means long-term cultural properties

Modern Japanese television dramas run for a short span of three-months with almost no chance of a second season. Television stations do not like to dedicate more time to these shows, as they are expensive to produce and generally risky. If they flop on the first episode, the sunk costs are a terrible burden. (There is no “pilot” system for early vetting.) Talent agencies appear to like the three-month schedule as well, maybe for the flexibility in allocating stars to different projects since most “stars” are multi-media players.

The problem, however, is that this short format kills any chance of creating long-term cultural properties for the networks. In just two seasons, Yappari Neko ga Suki established itself as a memorable piece of culture that now can be reassembled for nostalgic advertising purposes. Mobile Suit Gundam’s modern day popularity over an equally-landmark space anime like Superdimensional Fortress Macross may come down to the simple fact that Gundam has become a long-term, more expansive franchise than Macross. This may seem like an obvious point to U.S. TV viewers (who lust after the next season of Lost or 24), but the low-risk, industry-pleasing three-month dorama strategy of late is not conducive to thinking about the creation of valuable long-term assets.

3) Pinpoint marketing may work for mass products

At this point, it is unclear whether the Sapporo Namashibori campaign is producing results, but hats off to the brewery for running a mass market campaign centered around a relatively-cult late-night TV show with appeal to a very narrow band of adult women. Most ad campaigns for beer use generically-famous celebrities to transmit a vague brand message (“It’s tasty!”), but these three actresses — especially in this specific grouping — send more of a generational wink-wink to consumers than a broadly warm appeal (although the campaign is very “down home”-y even if you don’t know the Onda Sisters).

The beverage itself is probably not any more limited in appeal in taste than any other beer-like beverage, but with so many near-beers flooding the market, this pinpoint marketing towards a very specific and likely-sophisticated female segment makes the product stand out. Are sophisticated women in their 30s enough of a market to have their specific advertising messages for beer? We’ll find out soon enough.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Shibuya-kei vs. Akiba-kei

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

The new compilation CD AKSB is making headlines by bringing together two Japanese taste cultures generally considered as incompatible as oil and vinegar: the anime-obsessed otaku world of Akihabara (aka “Akiba-kei”) and the 1990s super-chic internationalist music, fashion, interior, and design movement referred to as “Shibuya-kei.”1 In this spirit of union, French lounge DJ legend Dimitri from Paris provides the theme song “Neko Mimi Mode” for the anime series Tsukuyomi -Moon Phase- while Pizzicato Five‘s Konishi Yasuharu — the Godfather of Shibuya-kei — remixes the theme song for cartoon Sgt. Frog (「ケロロ軍曹」). Besides those two icons, few superstars of Shibuya-kei make an appearance on the record, but with “Akihabara Pop” (aka “A-Pop”) carving a profitable niche in the doddering music market, the remaining few practitioners of the Shibuya-kei sound were probably happy to affiliate their genre with the otaku cash-cow.

Despite the “kei” designation (generally meaning “style”), Akiba-kei and Shibuya-kei are very different beasts, occupying different sections of the consumer spectrum and the schoolyard hierarchy. Shibuya-kei was basically a musical movement amongst an indie elite, while Akiba-kei describes a wider subculture of nerdy fantasy obsession. They both, however, have received media attention for “defining” their respective eras, and the differences between them help illustrate how Japanese pop culture has changed in the last 15 or so years. If Shibuya-kei represented the 1990s, what does Akiba-kei culture have to say about the first decade of the 21st century?

Both subcultures strongly share one thing: The members are “nerds” in the sense of being deeply obsessed with pop culture. Shibuya-kei pioneers Flipper’s GuitarOzawa Kenji and Oyamada Keigo (aka Cornelius) — made waves in the early ’90s market by introducing esoteric elements of British neo-acoustic, Madchester, French pops, Italian film soundtracks, late ’60s Moog records, ’60s mod jazz, and Brazilian bossa nova into Japanese-language pop songs. When asked about the source of their cool, they would offer, “We are basically just music nerds (otaku),” an honest self-reading. But because they were more knowledgeable about exciting foreign musical genres than almost everyone else, the media framed them as style leaders for young fashionable types on the lookout for the newest thing.

Akiba-kei fans are also obsessed with collecting and amassing information about pop cultural items, but notice the difference in interests: Instead of importing unknown foreign materials into the domestic cultural pool, Akiba otaku are interested in ruminating about domestic items and creating fan works based on these existing elements. Akiba culture is generally focused around the insular “uchi” — a term in Japanese encompassing the concepts “us” and “inside” and “at home.” The famously-introverted Akiba otaku not only confine their gaze to mostly domestic product but consume it privately or within confined social groupings. Shibuya-kei, on the other hand, focused on the “soto” — the “outside” world in the sense of both the wider “trend community” and international culture at large. Although there has always been a certain level of social discrimination against adults obsessed with video games, comic books, and cartoons, the main otaku culture has rarely been able to take on a “leadership” position for the media in that they do not offer or produce new elements for non-otaku to enjoy. They enjoy locally-produced Japanese culture, and for the media, this is old hat.

So the question is, why is Akiba-kei so “successful” at the moment when it had been perpetually dismissed as (slightly dangerous) nerd culture in the past? Shibuya-kei’s moment is much easier to explain: They were the latest elite in a general post-war Japanese trend of introducing “superior” foreign culture to a hungry consumer society. Akiba culture today still endures the same social prejudices since its dawning in the early ’80s, but suddenly the Japanese media has decided that “otaku are cool.” Some of this may be a misunderstanding of the “Japan Cool” concept: Since those foreigners think the cosplay guys, toy collectors, and goth-loli girls are “a super rad dudes,” I guess we should also pay them respect as our cultural leaders.2

More likely, however, is that the classic Japanese consumer trait of hoarding and collecting items has become rarer in recent years due to reduced consumer spending. At present, the Akiba otaku are the only widespread, definable group whose culture remains based on purchasing lots of items as a means to demonstrate fandom (ignore the New Rich’s conspicuous consumption for the moment). The media and producers celebrate the otaku as “model consumers,”3 secretly hoping that more mainstream Japanese will learn a thing or two from their passion for culture and consumerism. More importantly, things have gotten so bland in the contracting youth culture world that the “every-day-is-Halloween” weekend excitement of Akihabara beats everything else in terms of pep and pomp.

The developments in the media environment have also changed the cultural role for niche groups. The internet has made an “information-based elite” like the Shibuya-kei posse obsolete. When information was highly-valued, the individuals behind Flipper’s Guitar and Pizzicato Five could claim faster access to more foreign cultural information than the general population. The Net destroys this power imbalance by extending access to niche information and shortening the time lag between trend-setter cultural adoption and “majority” adoption. Due to this simple fact, the global fashion elite have always maintained a sort of disdain or nonchalance towards the Internet. (A certain ex-Shibuya-kei star is currently organizing grass-roots concerts by passing around fliers and asking fans to not mention the details on the Web.) Instead of fighting technological change, Akiba-kei otaku skillfully use the internet as a way to discuss and consecrate their favorite cultural items and disseminate new works to their community. This has only made the subculture stronger. In fact, Akiba-kei culture is the most appealing content attraction for the Japanese Internet at the moment.

In the end, the Akiba-kei subculture has won a top spot in the contemporary pop landscape because its culture has been least affected by the last decade’s democratization of media and the decline in the culture markets. Shibuya-kei’s aesthetic sense now seems passé, but moreover, the media complex no longer has much use for that breed of cutting-edge indie culture engaged in obscure international art and music. Insularity is not just limited to Akiba-kei in contemporary Japan, but defines the youth generation as a whole. With everyone dropping out of Cool Race 2000, predictable melodies and melodrama are the safer bet than trying to outcool your audience.

No one embodies this cultural shift more than young producer Nakata Yasutaka, who launched his unit Capsule in 2001 as a “Neo-Shibuya-kei” project trying to update Pizzicato Five’s bossa nova dance sound with modern music technology. Despite massive major label backing, he did not really gain much of an audience until abandoning the dated ’90s production and signing up as the producer for very-Akiba-kei “techno idols” Perfume. His cutesy digital robot pop propelled the girls to stardom and made Nakata a hero to obsessive otaku idol fans around the country. In the 21st century, international hipster cool cannot hold a candle to dancing, singing robotic Japanese dolls.


1 O-nii-kei magazines like Men’s Egg and Men’s Knuckle have started using the word “Shibuya-kei” in reference to their own style. This is accurate in a certain sense — this style is based in Shibuya — but confusing since the original Shibuya-kei already staked out that geolexical terminology. Maybe this is like the word “Emo” first describing bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring in the 1990s and then the sonically-unrelated My Chemical Romance in ’00s.

For those wondering why “Shibuya-kei” was called “Shibuya-kei” in the first place, the word came from the popularity of certain “Western-sounding” Japanese musicians at HMV and Tower Records in Shibuya. The neighborhood itself never really embodied their ’60s-revival aesthetic.

2 I don’t want to harp on this point, but Japan Cool contains at least three disparate elements — otaku culture (Akiba-kei), cognoscenti culture (including the Shibuya-kei stream), and youth subcultures (Kogyaru, Bosozoku, etc.). Anime can be cool in certain contexts (album covers for rap artists, etc.), but this does not mean that the genre has been able to transcend its nerdiness outside of Japan. Being really into Takashi Murakami or really into Naruto are still not equal within the snob hierarchy.

3 Yes, this is a pun.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

“Yappari hade ja nai”

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Despite a national love affair with television, the Japanese do not watch much cable TV. Perfect data on penetration is hard to obtain (the New York Times suggests that only 1 in 5 have satellite or cable), but when compared to other OECD nations, Japan does not rank particularly high. Although broadband bundling has made cable TV an easy and inexpensive option for most Japanese living in highly-populated areas, there is still no public rush to expand the number of channels on the TV from a half-dozen to 30+. Perhaps Japanese consumers demand a common programming experience to suit their social needs, or perhaps powerful advertising companies have some nefarious anti-cable strategy to keep eyeballs on the Big Five in order to maintain high ad rates for terrestrial TV. In the United States, cable diffusion has only increased cultural fracture and lowered ad rates for the traditional networks. So maybe what’s good for the Big Five is good for the Japanese nation.

But even without access to exact penetration rates, I have no doubt that cable TV is not particularly important in Japan. I am a cable subscriber, and the programs I enjoy seem to have only secured three or four advertisers, who have decided to play the same advertisements over the course of an entire television season.

While catching up on Lost Season 3 thanks to AXN, I was greeted week after week with the exact same commercial from MasterCard. In this Japanese adaptation of the credit card’s renown “Priceless” campaign, veteran Japanese actress Ohtake Shinobu tries on a new dress and exclaims to her on-screen daughter, “Yappari hade ja nai?” — meaning “See, isn’t this too flashy?” This mother and daughter have traveled to New York and are getting all dressed up in the hotel room to have a “priceless” night at a jazz club. (This level of gala festivities is apparently required for a mother in Japan to breach the topic of love lives with her children.)

There is nothing particularly odd or upsetting about this commercial, but the fact that it plays two or three times over the course of an hour, week after week — even during year-end repeats — results in a Lost viewer treated to the commercial around 100 times by the end of the series. Thanks to the repetition, I know every single line of the commercial, every inflection in delivery, every single cut, every single musical cue, every single note from the saxophone. I can tell you that there have been at least three distinct edits of the commercial, with the mother-daughter dialogue being changed from a dig against the father (“What’s your boyfriend like?” / “Like Dad.” / “You have bad taste!” Ha ha.) to the less biting banter “Tell me about him.” / “Do you want to know?” Around my house now, any exclamation of a two-syllable Japanese word is uttered within the form “Yappari —- ja nai?” in Ohtake’s pronunciation. This commercial has somehow become a part of my life.

Most companies aim for their commercials to gain maximum exposure, but I doubt many worry about the danger of over-exposure — the act of blasting TV fans with an endless barrage of identical promotional messages. No consumer could possibly enjoy this repetition, especially repeated over a half-year. What’s more, we modern consumers and TV viewers have come to expect a certain amount of diversity in weekly advertising — not only in the number of advertising companies but the number of different commercials provided by these companies. Repetition of the same advertisement suggests either advertiser laziness or non-competitiveness for the media space. The popular animation cable channel Animax, on the other hand, appears to be popular thanks to a plethora of advertisers and commercials.

In this mostly unconscious logic, more commercials -> more advertiser interest -> more viewers -> more legitimacy as a media product. So many products in Japan require some proof of social legitimacy before consumer feel comfortable with adoption. Cable TV is no different. The perceived value of cable TV programming content could hinge on the quality of commercials provided — and this would be another barrier for widespread penetration.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The MacroTrends Behind Top 2007 Products

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

On December 3, Nikkei Marketing Journal (MJ) offered a refereed list of the top 36 products from 2007 within a mock sumo wrestling ranking chart. (Click here for an explanation of the makuuchi sumo rankings.) The winners were:

EAST

Yokozuna – Nintendo Wii & DS
Ohseki – Face recognition technology (used in digital cameras)
Sekiwake –  “Mega” fast foods (MegaMac)
Komusubi – Video uploading (YouTube & Nico Nico Douga)
Maegashira – iPod Touch
Pilot Frixion ballpoint pen
– Region-differentiated pricing (started by McDonalds)
– Luxury hair-care products
Billy’s Boot Camp
Blu-ray disc recorders
Tomato liquor
National A-La-Uno toilet
Leggins
“My hashi”: carrying personal chopsticks
Sen no kaze ni Natte (hit song)
– India-style calculation method (Vedic Mathematics)
– New operating systems (Vista, Leopard)
“Balance” fitness

WEST

Yokozuna – E-Money
Ohseki – High-quality video cameras
Sekiwake – Tokyo (Midtown, Shin-Maru Building, Yurakucho ITOCiA, etc.)
Komusubi – Softbank White Plan
Maegashira – Axe body spray
Charmy “Power of Foam” dish detergent
– Constant prices at supermarkets despite rising material costs
Transino liver-spot remover
Model planes that can be flown inside the home
(Return of the) Nissan GT-R
Calorie-zero sodas
– INAX Kururin Poi Drain
Unicharm Lifely Slimwear for seniors
Eco Bags
“Butt Biting Bug”
Salt-flavored sweets
Grand Pianist toy
PuchiPuchi “infinite bubble pop” toy

Underlying Macro Trends in this Ranking List

1)  No Kids or Youth Products / Lots of Middle-Age or Elderly-Marketed Products

A decade ago, Japanese schoolgirls gained a reputation for leading trends and creating hit products — essentially the “early adopters” for the whole of society. Looking at this 2007 list, however, there is almost nothing that gained massive popularity within or growing out of youth cultures. Axe body spray is apparently a huge hit with the kids, but hard to detect from the sights and smells of the city. On the other hand, the DS and Wii succeeded precisely because Nintendo took gaming into society at large — including women in their 20s (with their custom-bejewled DS lites) and the elderly. Leggings — the only apparel item on the list — experienced broad adoption, but it was women in their 20s that led the charge. Even the few toys on the list — Grand Pianist, PuchiPuchi, and inside-friendly model planes — seem to be relatively adult-oriented. (MJ makes the note that the Grand Pianist appealed to 40 year-olds). Maybe the “Butt Biting Bug” song was a “kid” thing, but the slightly grown-up nature of the lyrics attracted the most attention. Young students probably have to do the Indian-style method of calculation, but only because their parents force them to.

If there was an item that showed Japanese youth contribution to culture, surely it was Koizora — the “keitai novel” turned hit book and film. High school students love melodrama, and hoaxy-anonymous authors like “Mika” deliver the goods: dead boyfriends, gang rape, and miscarriages.

In addition to a lack of youth products, there also seem to be lots of “mature” products in categories normally attracting teens. For example, the big hit/development amongst non-alcoholic beverages was zero calorie colas. I seriously doubt the kids are the ones demanding less fattening soft drinks. Nor do I think that they are so jaded with artificial flavors to demand a little salt in their sweets. Needless to say, the youth are definitely not the ones demanding incontinence-ready “slimwear” or liver-spot remover either. Even the pop music market — which has historically been teen-oriented — was best represented by the (year-old) cheesy semi-opera work “Sen no kaze ni natte” topping the charts, perhaps sending a message of impending doom for Japanese youth culture as a whole. The main point is, middle-aged and elderly Japanese are now leading consumer culture in Japan without much competition from their children and grandchildren.

2)  Eco Eco Eco

Judging by the large number of eco-conscious products on this list, Japanese consumers do seem to be making concrete efforts to show more personal commitment to global footprint reduction. The idea of carrying around personal chopsticks (in order to avoid using the disposable wooden waribashi) is a small-scale pro-environment action, but a positive sign if indeed a mass trend. The “eco tote bag” made being green much easier by doubling as a fashion statement. (Yes, there were crowds and disorder before the Anya Hindmarch eco bag went on sale in Ginza, but something about the event seemed different from the normal crowds of patient Japanese youth.)

3)  Class-Bifurcated Market

The Japanese population avoided drinking an even cheaper, worse-quality beer-like beverage this year, but the market continued towards its two-tier structure of providing the wealthy with first-class versions of products while creating low-price goods for everyone else. The “luxury hair care” boom proved that a certain population is willing to pay way more for shampoo and conditioner than ever before — or maybe just that women are willing to pay more to guarantee luxury-quality hair. Meanwhile, people are flocking to the Softbank White Plan to reduce their cell phone bills. If you think about it enough, the Mega Mac and other “mega” fast food can almost be seen as a “freeter luxury” for those poor souls who can no longer afford to partake in giant steak dinners. And now with McDonalds starting region-variable pricing, businesses are clearly starting to add in price differentiation strategies to capitalize on the growing inequalities. This should be a key trend for 2008 as well — for better or worse.

4)  What Internet?

Although there are a lot of gadgets and technical innovations on this list, there seems to be little recognition of Net culture’s impact on society. Yes, YouTube and Nico Nico Douga are attracting lots of viewers, but this is just a continuation of last year’s trend than anything new. And these sites are still filled with illegal copies of TV and music videos rather than original content created by actual Japanese users. (The homemade Halfby videos are a good sign, however.) The iPod Touch’s most innovative feature for Americans — the ability to browse the internet using Wi-Fi — is completely worthless in Tokyo where almost no buildings or cafés offer free wireless service. The new operating systems “trend” is a pretty boring one — neither Vista nor Leopard changed any lives. In general, the list makes it sound like there have been more plumbing innovations — the A-la-uno toilet and Kururin Poi drain — than new evolutions in internet culture.

Due to the state of entrenched industry know-how, Japan has always been more about standalone gadgets than computer-based peripherals and desktop applications. With the Blu-ray recorder and high-quality video cameras, this principle still seems to be in action. Even E-money seems to chart out an alternative future rather than streamlining the concept of currency with the internet.

Although this year saw more internet phenomena — the aforementioned keitai shousetsu cell-phone novels reaching the top of the book charts and 2-ch flaming-related corporate scandals, etc. — we still don’t get the sense that the internet has become interwoven with Japanese life like in the United States or South Korea. This is not to say that these two nations represent the authoritative version of the “future”; simply, Japanese companies remain devoted to pursuing their own conception of a gadget-based technological progress rather than just hopping on the global bandwagon.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Rent-a-Bag and the Meaning of “Trend”

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

The new Japanese company ORB (On-Line Rent-a-Bag) gives women the opportunity to rent luxury handbags from upscale European design houses Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Chanel for short-term periods. Although its business model is nearly identical to that of American company Bag Borrow or Steal, ORB is perhaps the first above-the-line implementation of “luxury rental” in Japan. Members of ORB’s “Bag Club” pay the not-so-cheap price of ¥29,800 per month for access to a wide selection of high-end products. For such a hefty fee, one could easily afford the monthly credit card payments on a truly spectacular bag. But ORB gives you the never-before-available option of changing luxury horses in midstream. Better yet, a constantly-rotating series of bags from ORB may give your peers the impression that you are a member of the exclusive Japanese upper classes with cash to burn on multiple luxury handbags. (Is the whole “handbag for life” thing suddenly an obvious signifier of the middle class?)

Here’s the deeper question when writing about ORB: Is luxury bag-rental worth identifying as a trend? So far, we only know of one company offering this service, and we have no idea whether the business model will be successful. Furthermore, we should not assume that the service succeeds in satisfying consumer needs simply on the publicized news of its foundation. Sure, it’s a noteworthy idea — somewhat novel, somewhat innovative — but does it pass the threshold to win “trend” designation?

At the end of the year, we are inundated with lists and lists of “The Year’s Hit Products” and “Buzzwords of the Year,” and although the media may not use the word “trend reporting,” they all attempt to give a sense of where popularity congregated over the last 52 weeks. This may seem like an odd time in the course of this blog (and within this particular essay) to start deconstructing the entire trend-spotting industry, but we felt like we needed to take a step back and look at common misdiagnoses of trends — especially in Japan.

(1) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Production/Manufacturing/Innovation: A lot of Japan-oriented trend blogs seem to push “cool” products as “trends” without any evidence that consumers agree. Yes, there are a lot of crazy, zany things that make it to the Japanese marketplace, but not all of these products will see substantial sales or have even been created with consumer research in mind. This is not to say that products specifically created to satisfy pre-existing consumer needs automatically become hits, but there must be some measure of reception to designate any piece of novelty as a “trend.” At best, there is a “production trend” in Japan for companies to make humanoid robots that play instruments; Asimo’s mere existence, however, says nothing about Japanese consumer sentiment towards the possibility of robot cohabitation.

(2) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Media (i.e., the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy): If you want to understand the entire blueprint for the new year (essentially viewing the “spoilers” for the next 365 days of consumer culture), read Dentsu’s forecast for the “Hit Products of 2008” included in their forthcoming “Hit Products of 2007” report. Since the advertising giant has the media budget to secure hits (or at least, create the illusion of success/authority in the media space), their predictions have better odds than the Harlem Globetrotters beating the Washington Generals. For example, just as predicted, Tokyo Midtown was “big” in 2007, but in what possible circumstances could the complex have not been a hit?

Since the Japanese mass media’s central organizational role is to advocate sponsored products from a position of central authority, the media’s definition of trend is always tautological: If the media decides to constantly feature a product, it therefore appears as a “hit” or a “trend” solely from all the exposure. This does not mean, however, that their pronouncement is a lie: The mass plurality of consumers in Japan still buy and participate in mass trends based solely on the amount of media exposure.

But even when consumers don’t take the bait, how can an objective observer really tell? Does the popular advertorial TV show Ohsama no Brunch ever do flashback stories on things that did not turn out to be successful despite its enthusiastic coverage? “Podcasting” was a buzzword in Japan a while back, but when the media dust settled, the “trend” was totally empty.

(3) Trend Reports Ignoring the Importance of Continuity: Xavel’s cell-phone/PC fashion shopping sites fashionwalker.com and girlswalker have been incredibly successful, but the company clearly rode on the coattails of market-leading manufacturers, media institutions, and talent-agencies. The expansion of fashion retail into “new media” has definitely been a real innovation, and objectively, the high levels of mass support have made “keitai shopping” a trend by any measure. The entire Xavel [now Branding] enterprise, however, is still dependent upon the legitimacy of traditional media. Without access to Ebi-chan & Co., it’s unclear if consumers would have ever made the leap into the arms of an unknown retailer. So, yes, Xavel is a real trend, but the company’s innovation has been more dependent upon continuity than innovation.

Our last post on hit novel Koizora makes a similar criticism: what is the difference between the success of a “traditional” novel with a high-expenditure mass market television campaign and a book-form “keitai novel” that receives the exact same promotional treatment? Koizora‘s hit status says more about the constancy of promotional power in Japan than the innovation in content creation.

(4) Trends that Overemphasize the Rogers Model: We no longer live in an unidirectional marketplace where elitist “early adopters” take up products and are then imitated by the less cool “early majority.” These days, popular products often completely skip hipster adopters, and sometimes the early majority intentionally rejects the styles of the well-respected media/art/fashion complex. In Japan, trendy underground culture has become a deserted island; the idea that its Lost-like survivors can somehow transmit their love of RSS, CSS and American Apparel to hordes of Johnny’s Jimusho fans is silly. There are real early adopters — sales clerks at Shibuya 109, for example — but are frequently ignored when they do not share the same taste culture as the actual trend-spotters. So, not only does the classic diffusion model not apply particularly well to the 21st century environment, trend-spotters generally give too much credence to “early adopters” similar to themselves or the Western example but lacking in real opinion leadership.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

This essay is not to say that there isn’t noteworthy reporting on innovations, novelties, and borrowable ideas from the Japanese market, but there is always an error of over-reporting these as “mass trends.” If we return to the initial problem in analyzing the “rent-a-luxury-bag” phenomenon, the best course may be to err on the side of skeptical neutrality. Reporting on new products and services is great fun for blog posts, but overselling novelty as “trend” can create a false sense of market realities.

Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation

Friday, November 16th, 2007

If the promotional materials are to be believed, one out of every ten Japanese has already shed tears over the “keitai novel” Koizora 『恋空』. This level of cultural penetration would make the work the mainstream media event of the 21st century — quite a feat for an amateurishly-written love story about gang rape, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, and premature cancer deaths. The figure of 12 million may be a misreading of internet download statistics, but Koizora’s success in mainstream markets has been the real deal. Beginning as a keitai shōsetsu posted on a host-focused bulletin board in 2005, downloads of the story from the keitai novel site Mahō no Island eventually hit 10 million in its first year. The cleaned-up book version sold in the millions, a manga version appeared, and the recent film adaptation debuted at #3 on the box office. A “side-story” Kimizora: ‘koizora’ another story is currently topping the fiction charts.

Although we at clast have been skeptical in the past about the internet’s ability to completely crack the old production systems for culture in Japan, Koizora clearly presents the case of a total “nobody” creating content, “publishing” it through an open website, gaining grass-roots popularity, and finally winning sponsorship from the larger entertainment industry (in this case, Starts Publishing and Tōhō Company, with help from Lawson’s, Tsutaya, NTT, and Mitsuya Cider etc.) Some wonder how this particular work found its way into the system so quickly (when more popular keitai writers continue to be ignored), but just as in the Chad Vader model, Japanese companies are clearly using the internet as a testing ground for new talent.

In other ways, however, Koizora is just another example of traditional Japanese diffusion patterns for pop culture. Whether schoolgirl fashion or a hot band, microtrends in Japan very rarely show clean linear (or even exponential) growth from the grass-roots level up to the masses. Once a certain product or style becomes slightly visible on the street, the mainstream media complex scoops it up and propels it into national news/advertising campaigns — thus creating an immediate explosion in interest or participation for the entire country. The effect is a huge jump in diffusion rather than a smooth curve. In the case of Koizora, the original “phone novel” phenomenon may have been impressive for that niche, but the book printing was promoted through mass-targeted television advertising; the subsequent high sales should not be too surprising.

The most interesting feature of Koizora‘s success may be its author — “Mika” (美嘉) —  about whom we know absolutely nothing. Despite being the best-selling young female author of recent days and an overnight millionaire, “Mika” has chosen not to reveal herself to the public. Like Densha Otoko before, Mika is essentially anonymous and untraceable. We get nothing more than a first-name and some attributed quotes. Koizora is supposed to be a “true story” of her youth, or at least, “based on her experiences.”

Since nobody in the Japanese media appears interested in investigating the real Mika and readers do not have problems with the gross inaccuracies in Mika’s depiction of pregnancy and malignant lymphoma, the author has no pressure to add a face and full name to her semi-literary stardom. Anonymity is important for individuals to share their creations on the internet, but there is also a sympathy and understanding amongst Japanese consumers towards protecting the anonymity of those who request it. Anonymity, however, is also a key component of this form of confessional literature. Not only does the “nobodiness” of the author make it seem more “real” and “personal,” anonymity protects seemingly-autobiographical narrative works from the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces danger of exposé.

Empathy is the key emotional response to a book like Koizora. Readers cry because they have emotionally invested in the pain and suffering of this protagonist — feelings no doubt amplified by the assumption that the terrible gang-rape bullying and teenage death actually happened to this pitiful author. Once the narrative becomes “based on a true story,” revealing the true degree of fictionalization may lead to collective let-down. If Mika were really a forty-year old data-entry clerk who experienced completely unremarkable teenage years, the whole prerequisites at the base of the “empathy” start to fall apart. It’s not fun to cry for the pain of a friend who has lost her mother and then find out the next day that the mom is alive and she was lying the whole time to get you to pay for drinks.

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle. Even in the face of possible fame and fortune, amateur writers are finding it more helpful to hide real identities in order to reap in the benefits of building fantastical realities for mass empathy. The masses of readers are more likely to tolerate terrible writing, melodramatic clichés, and incredulous stories of sex and death on the assumption that they are first-hand accounts. The Internet has made the narrative behind the “success” of a creative work as important as the narrative contained the work itself. Breaking Mika’s anonymity in the case of Koizora would ruin both.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Girls From Good Families

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

On November 17, popular Japanese lingerie company Peach John will open a shop within the flagship Shinjuku branch of esteemed department store Isetan. In the last decade, PJ has made a dramatic transformation from a small outfit importing American bras to a catalog sales giant with 20 locations in brick-and-mortar stores. Moving up to Isetan seems like a natural progression for the burgeoning brand, but this will not be just “another store.” The language of Peach John’s latest venture hints at a new direction for the company, and more broadly, an intriguing trend in Japanese marketing.

According to the November 6th Senken Shimbun story 「ピーチ・ジョンが伊勢丹本店に出店」, the name of Peach John’s project for Isetan is “Girls from Good Families” — spelled out in katakana 「ガールズ・フロム・グッド・ファミリー」. Senken “translates” this Japanese-scripted English into more standard Japanese as「良家の子女」.

Peach John’s current stores are mostly located in fashion buildings like Shibuya 109, and the Isetan project is the company’s first foray into department stores. In terms of customer base, Isetan definitely attracts a much different crowd than Shibuya 109. The age range and fashion aesthetics of the two audiences are different, but so are the tax brackets. For ¥20,000 at Shibuya 109, you can buy an entire autumn ensemble; at Isetan, you could maybe buy a single pillow. (But not necessarily one of the nicer pillows.)

Certainly, girls from “good families” are shopping at Isetan, but I find it strange to come out and code these consumers with that exact label. What does Peach John mean by “good family”? Rich? Old money? Does this mean that shoppers from Shibuya 109 are from “bad families”? Or just “less good families”? Does Peach John only want to attract daughters of fourth-generation doctors on the Board of charitable organizations? Or should the big-spending female offspring of loan sharks feel shame towards their lineage when stepping up to the cash register?

The marketing concept is smart, though: In order to attract a zone of consumers willing to pay higher prices for essentially the same product, Peach John will downplay the somewhat tawdry image established in its mass advertising campaigns. PJ’s train ads usually feature busty half-Japanese models like Jessica Michibata, Kelly, and Fujii Rina wearing revealing lingerie inside what appears to be the world’s most adorable brothel. The recent inclusion of Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie on the cover of the catalog may be an attempt to tone down the sex appeal towards men, but regardless, the tenor of the usual messaging probably does not impress the “well-to-do” mother from a “good family” that PJ imagines shops at Isetan. Leopard print bras could besmirch generations of inherited wealth. So Peach John is creating a new pocket for the brand, leaving the “over-stimulating” animal print at Shibuya 109, and creating a special selection at Isetan that moms will happily purchase for their little duchesses and baronesses. Standard PJ references to pole dancing will not be welcome. “Good families” apparently pass down Victorian attitudes towards sexuality from generation to generation.

Peach John’s new strategy further bolsters the idea that income disparity is becoming an obvious part of Japanese social and business life. I find it odd, however, that the marketing language is actually using loaded terms like “良家” (ryouke) to pander to the upper classes. Currently, the New Rich are a much dominant consumer group in Japan than actual “good families.” The nouveau riche, however, may like this idea of being treated with social respect solely from their ability to indulge in luxury goods. On the other hand, the girls at Shibuya 109 may begin to question why they are not being labeled as “girls from good families,” but they probably aren’t reading daily trade publications to find out the names of their favorite brands’ retail promotion strategies.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Japan CGM: Is it the system rather than the individual?

Friday, October 19th, 2007

Reading this New York Times article about the potential “big time” success of “Chad Vader” creators — Wisconsin-based improvisational actors Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda I couldn’t help but think their success was not just contingent upon this new piece of technology called “the Internet” but the fundamental organization of the labor market in the American entertainment industry. As we saw in the original Clast piece on Japanese consumer generated media (CGM), there is no bona fide “Chad Vader phenomenon” in Japan, nor a notable number of Net content creators jumping out of the online to make sizable waves in the off-line world. While the lack of high-quality CGM with a broad appeal is one issue, there remains a fundamental question about entertainment industry reception even if Japanese individuals manage to create “break-through” content.

Here is the key quote from the NYT piece:

“[Sloan and Yonda are] an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s
interested in that,” said their agent, Dan Shear of the William Morris talent agency, which has represented them for about two years.

There are two underlying assumptions in this sentence which illuminate why the transition from CGM to MSM (mainstream media) is much easier in the United States than Japan.

Assumption Number One: these two “nobodies” from Madison, Wisconsin have representation through the William Morris agency — probably the most well-known agent organization in the U.S. These agents make their money by finding new individuals with promise and helping them connect to possible employers. They are literally “agents” of the individual — hired by an actor/writer/performer and paid a percentage of the employment deals they are able to negotiate. Since they are “agents” of the up-and-coming artist, the artist employs the agent and not the other way around.

In Japan, there are essentially no agents in this mold. The primary organizational intermediaries between talent and the media are management companies — jimusho in local lingo. In reverse of the U.S. model, they hire young talent, whom they treat as employees with steady salaries unrelated to actual gross income. While there are literally thousands of these jimusho in Tokyo alone, only a handful have any sort of access to the top echelons of Japanese television — specifically: Burning Production and its dozens of semi-open subsidiaries (in charge of Fujiwara Norika, Amuro Namie, etc.), Amuse (Southern All Stars), Yoshimoto Kogyo (Downtown), Tanabe Agency (Tamori, Rip Slyme), Up Front Agency (Morning Musume), and a few others. In the traditional model, management companies use financial and human resources to “raise” young talents.  The jimushos then levy access to their current hit starts to force media companies to use new talents in first-rate ad campaigns and television shows. As a result, TV show producers rarely audition in open casting calls: they politely ask which star the management company would like them to use and generally comply with the instructions.

Management companies, however, are so small and specified in their activities that they cannot easily absorb “new talent” that may have come to attention without their help. In fact, I think it is fair to say that jimushos generally see anyone who grew to prominence without passing through the management company system as a threat to their institutional position of supplying new talent.

This leads us to Assumption Number Two taken from the earlier quote: “They’re an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s interested in that.” Precisely due to the very oligopolistic jimusho system in Japan, no one (in the industry, at least) is interested in “original comedic voices.” The sources for comedy on Japanese TV have already been established: Yoshimoto Kogyo’s manzai cabal and a few knock-offs in different jimusho. CAA and William Morris may hold a certain level of oligopolistic power in the United States in terms of getting their clients’ feet in the door, but they wield it as agents, not semi-content producers like in the case of management companies. In Japan, new kinds of content cannot be easily absorbed because management companies protect their system in which they control the creation and tone of content and single-handedly groom the pool of celebrity talent. Essentially, the jimushos want to keep tastes stable (or, at the very least, manage the rate of change) in order to preserve the value of the talent they already control.

In the case of Team Chad Vader in the United States, the medium may have changed from TV to YouTube, but the talent scouting system is essentially the same. In fact, the Internet only makes William Morris’ job easier by giving agents a gauge of popular support to measure the future possibilities of potential clients. Selling Yonda and Sloan as “hot” comics is easy when they’ve got six zeros in their YouTube view count rather than a “pretty good” spec script of Scrubs.

CGM is prospering in Japan to a certain degree, mostly where the participants are able to stay anonymous (NicoNico Douga or countless Hatsune Miku videos, for example), but the question is: If someone is willing to put themselves out there as a traceable individual and “break,” will there be anyone to catch them?

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.